By Michael Rand
In trying to find a worthy comparison for Gary Smith’s contributions to the world of sportswriting (and writing in general), several names popped up. The Babe Ruth of … The Wayne Gretzky of … The Michael Jordan of … but none sounded right. Hopefully, you get the idea: his depth of writing for Sports Illustrated has defined a genre. Twenty of his best pieces appear in a new book called “Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.” If you aren’t familiar with his work, there’s always time for change. From legends to relative unknowns, Smith finds a way to get to the heart of stories. He also recently took the time to answer some questions from us. Here we go:
RandBall: How did you pick these 20 stories, and was that a difficult process?
Gary Smith: It was. I went back and forth over a lot of them. One thing was wanting to get all four of the national magazine award stories in there. And there are three that either a movie has been made or rights for a movie have been sold. Then I was just trying to get a mix. I had some thoughts toward pacing, a mixture of celebrities and unknown. And things with a different feel. There was no formula or science to it.
RB: Do you have a personal favorite or favorites?
GS: It’s hard to say, but up there among the favorites is one I wrote called “Damned Yankee” and the one about Ali’s entourage.
RB: I’d like to talk about the process: For one of the average-length pieces in the book, can you give me a rough outline of the process from the inception of the idea to publication?
GS: I get an idea, and then I try to spend a couple days reading anything I can about it. I jot some questions down, and if the person is agreeable I try to spend a week and a half or so with them. Then I come back and start transferring material into my laptop, putting it into categories. I’m thinking about the material, thinking about themes, and writing down follow-up questions, and I do a good bit of follow-up calling. Then I’m thinking about how I want to structure it, what the piece really has to say, trying to show it not just say it, and then finally I start writing. That will take an average of three weeks.
RB: You not only get access to your subjects, but you use it extraordinarily well. Your ability to peel back the layers – and to keep peeling – is the key to your work, in my mind. How would you describe the way you approach and gain the trust of your subjects?
GS: Some of it has to do with being comfortable with yourself and trusting yourself, and hopefully that puts the other person at ease. They get a sense with the questions as its developing and unfolding that the priority is just trying to understand who they are as a person instead of trying to judge them. Maybe some of them have read a few things I’ve written before, which helps. … It definitely is something that develops over time. It’s something that’s grown with confidence in what I was doing.
RB: When you go that deep with people, how do you ultimately let go and move on to the next thing?
GS: It’s kind of like coming up out of a dream sometime. It takes a couple days to clear it out of your head, and its’ never completely cleared out. The stories and the people – you emerge from something.
RB: You remark in the acknowledgments, “In an industry in which the long narrative is gasping …” a partial quote intended to give thanks to your editor at SI. What are your thoughts on the overall direction of the business and the types of writing going on?
GS: The movement of ad dollars from print to online is hard to ignore. I think it’s a shame, and something will be lost. To me, the web is a great medium, but it’s far from the ideal medium for long, thought-provoking things. We’re going there with a mindset of going there for information. You’re in that mode, trigger finger ready for a scroll, rather than to think or feel and absorb it. I’m hoping in some way that through at least books or something, people will realize the importance of something that takes them to a different place, that there’s some forum for that aside from the web. I just don’t think that transaction works there. That medium (the Internet) works for other things.
RB: What else do you read, both within the sportswriting world and beyond?
GS: We get the New York Times here every day, and I read the local Charleston (S.C.) paper. Beyond that, the last couple of years I have been reading a lot of philosophy. A friend of mine and I are trying to follow the ball from the Pre-Socratics in Greece to where we are now … we’re not all the way through. We’re maybe halfway down that road right now.
RB: Interesting. Is that type of range in your reading something that translates into your writing, or is it just a personal interest?
GS: It’s both. It has definitely shaped a lot of how I think about the world and other human beings, and how I approach stories.
RB: I imagine you aren’t used to being the interview subject. Is it strange being in the other chair, so to speak?
GS: I definitely have done more of that [interviewing] in the last couple of weeks than in my entire life. The questions have all been good … but it is strange. I’m not learning anything new.